The Miami man who financed and arranged baseball star Yasiel Puig’s defection from Cuba pleaded guilty Tuesday to conspiring in a smuggling operation designed to capitalize on the player’s major-league value.
Gilberto Suarez, 40, faces a maximum prison term of 10 years when he is sentenced March 6, although he could get much less if he cooperates with investigators seeking to deconstruct the South Florida-based smuggling network.
Suarez must forfeit the $2.5 million Puig paid him for the escape after Puig signed a $42 million contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Suarez will also lose a Southwest Miami-Dade house, North Bay Village condominium, 2014 Mercedes Benz and three guns he bought with smuggling profits.
Suarez not only helped Puig and three friends illegally cross the border from Mexico to Texas in the summer of 2012 but he also aided in the transport of another player, Aledmys Diaz, 24, formerly a shortstop for Cuba’s Villa Clara team, according to the plea agreement. Diaz defected during a 2012 tournament in the Netherlands. He then established residency in Mexico, a common way station for Cuban players while they are cleared to become unrestricted free agents. Diaz signed a four-year, $8 million deal with the St. Louis Cardinals earlier this year.
Puig, 24, a flamboyant outfielder and fan favorite in Los Angeles, was runner-up for 2013 National League Rookie of the Year, behind Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez.
Suarez “conspired with other people to induce Cuban migrants to enter into the United States,” said the plea agreement accepted by U.S. District Court Judge Robert Scola. Suarez was one of four South Florida men who put up money to pay for Puig’s defection in return for a cut of his future earnings, according to an affidavit in a $12 million civil lawsuit against Puig.
Puig’s journey from his hometown of Cienfuegos to major-league stardom was fraught with danger and threats as the smugglers argued with the Miami backers over payment, which rose from $250,000 to $400,000.
The plan was hatched in Miami, according to the affidavit from former Cuban national team boxing heavyweight Yunior Despaigne, a longtime friend of Puig’s. Despaigne said he was contacted by Miami air conditioning repairman and recycling company owner Raul Pacheco, who wanted to persuade Puig to flee to Mexico.
Puig agreed to the plot in exchange for signing over 20 percent of his future earnings. On their fifth try, Puig, Despaigne and two friends got off the island and onto a speedboat that took them 400 miles to Mexico’s Isla Mujeres. They were held for weeks at a motel there by smugglers with ties to the Los Zetas drug cartel while the price for Puig increased. Pacheco, collaborating with Suarez, arranged to move the group of four to Mexico City, Despaigne said.
Puig met with Suarez and South Florida sports agent Jaime Torres in Mexico City while they negotiated his contract with the Dodgers, Despaigne said. The deal was signed June 28, 2012, and “Suarez stood to receive a percentage of any payments on that contract,” the plea agreement says.
Suarez first arranged for Puig’s three friends to cross the border into the United States. Travel records show Suarez stayed in Mexico until July 1, 2012, and arranged for Puig to cross into Brownsville, Texas, on July 3, the plea agreement says.
“Suarez specifically told the baseball player to go into a vehicle that would bring the player across the border,” the agreement states. “Suarez knew at the time that the player never obtained a visa to enter the United States.”
When Suarez was indicted in September, his lawyer said Suarez, owner of a company called Miami Sport Management, was acting as a sports agent.
“He is not in the business of smuggling people into the country,” said lawyer Bijan Parwaresch. “All this involvement in this case has purely to do with nothing else but him working as a sports agent.”
After Suarez changed his plea to guilty Tuesday, neither he nor Parwaresch would comment on the case.